Stepping into Diaspora Salon, tucked into a cozy corner of Charles Village, is instant sensory time travel, transporting me back to hanging out at the beauty shop with my grandmother on a Saturday morning. It’s in the sound of chatter and easy laughter over soulful music. The feeling of fingers pressed lovingly but firmly into your scalp. The sight of Afrocentric art. The women of all ages and every imaginable warm shade of brown, united in the hopes of transformation.

The most obvious difference is what you smell. Or, rather, what you don’t smell: the odor of burning hair singed from curling irons and flatirons, or the acrid chemical sting of relaxers that make Black hair lie down in submission. What is in the air? Wafting scents of lavender and other essential oils.

It feels like the set of a Jill Scott video — authentic and lyrical and unapologetically Black, all curves and softly sumptuous oomph. It feels like home.

Since 2015, Diaspora has provided a sanctuary for Baltimore’s natural curls and coils without relaxers or harsh products like oils or butters that coat the hair. It’s a celebration of what our hair is, without interference or alteration. And that’s more than enough. We are more than enough.

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“From Baltimore to Barcelona to Brazil, Black women have the same experience with our hair,” said salon owner Yasmine Young. Black women aren’t alone in obsessing about their hair, but we are singularly taxed with it being instantly political. No one else has had to have legislation passed to ensure that we can wear our locks the way it grows out of our scalps without worrying about getting hired or fired.

The worth of the coily, springy bounty, which ranges from straight to wavy to boldly thick and kinky, has traditionally been gauged on how close to whiteness we can get it ― “like a paper bag test for hair,” Young said. We thought that to be beautiful and acceptable we had to fry our tresses, slather them in lye and add pieces to them. Between styling, products and maintenance, Black people spend billions of dollars annually on our hair.

Stylist Leah Register works on Leslie Gray Streeter’s hair. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)
Diaspora Salon specializes in natural Black hairstyles. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

The women sitting around me at Disapora all have stories of the Black celebrities from Sade to Janet Jackson whose smooth hair we idolized, of the hundreds of dollars worth of butters and potions now shoved half-used into some drawer. We can tell you about our first “big chop,” when you literally cut all of the relaxed, chemically straightened and damaged hair off and start over.

“I always wanted to look like the girls on the ‘Just For Me’ box,’” Young remembered, referencing a popular brand of relaxers for kids. Ironically, it was recently revealed that some of the girls on those boxes didn’t even have relaxed hair. “We was bamboozled!” laughed stylist Leah Register. There’s lots of laughter at Diaspora. And after not being in a salon for years because of the pandemic, it’s so welcome.

“We were closed for three solid months, and when we came back, there were more than 670 appointment requests. It was like, ‘When y’all opening?’” Register said.

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Diaspora has seen Jazzmen Watson, who lives in Original Northwood, through coils, “a purple phase,” a more subdued reddish brown, and now, since having her baby, locs. “Other salons said they did natural hair but they didn’t, really. But I found Diaspora and I never went anywhere else,” she said.

I did my first big chop in 2000, and then a second nearly 20 years later after a particularly damaging blowout and blonde-ing session destroyed my curl pattern. I stuck to the barbershop around the corner for a while before I found Diaspora online. They’re very specific about the state and prep of the hair they service; their site says hair must be in its “raw naturally textured state” to be worked on — not relaxed, flat-ironed or texturized. It also has to be free of products with silicones, butters or oils.

Young said clients don’t always understand the rules, but that they aren’t about exclusion. They’re about making sure that the stylists understand your beautiful, naked hair.

Like most Black women, Young wanted to have relaxed hair since she was very young. But all that changed when she attended the long-running Jazzy Summer Nights performance series and was introduced to the Baltimore-born band Fertile Ground, “who were very organic, neo-soul before it was a thing. I saw people with natural hair, who had locs. And I thought, ‘This is my tribe,’” she said. “I cut all my hair off, and my boyfriend broke up with me. He said, ‘You look like me.’”

While that was obviously not the right man for Young, she was on the right path to discovering who she was, including her hair. And she realized that there were a lot of other people on that same journey who needed her help.

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“There was no salon that was just doing curly hair,” she said. “I knew there were around the country, but I realized that so many of the products were not compatible with the way we style hair. Your hair can’t breathe with all that.”

Young estimates that she’s had about 5,500 clients in the last eight years, most of whom are Black women (though the salon welcomes anyone with natural curls, including “the non-melanated,” she said). Her advice for anyone considering going naturally curly is to not expect an instant Hollywood makeover as soon as the stylist turns you around to face the mirror. “Everything’s not gonna happen in the first appointment,” she explained.

But it’s a start. The first time I touched my nearly-shorn scalp and felt the intricate coils that had always been waiting to present themselves unadulterated and real, I cried. I felt and looked more like the me I think I was always supposed to be. Also, nothing on my body was burning. That’s always a plus.

Leslie Gray Streeter shows off the results of her haircut at Diaspora. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)